I was first introduced to and fell in love with Jason Robert Brown when someone lent me the soundtrack to “The Last Five Years”. Searching for more from Brown, I discovered “Songs for a New World”. And that soundtrack is how I fell out of love with Jason Robert Brown. His strength is sentiment, which drips from every song he writes. Unfortunately, he’s a fan of repetition. He’ll take a melodic phrase and repeat it three or four times in a row. That’s clever, unless you use it in a majority of your songs. And that’s part of why I don’t really care for “Songs for a New World”. It’s one Brown song after another. And, unfortunately, too many of them sound the same. So, it’s repetitive within each song and then repetitive with so many similar songs filling the show. Individually, the songs are good. But, when strung together in a show that isn’t anything more than and collection of songs and, frankly, I get bored.
However, I don’t think that makes “Songs for a New World” a show to skip. There’s a reason Jason Robert Brown has a following (which makes more sense with The Last Five Years). It’s good to expose yourself to his early work to get a sense of his style. Fortunately, we get that chance, thanks to The Green Room Theatre.
Despite what I don’t like about the show, The Green Room’s production is truly applaudable. It’s worthy of praise, if only because of the circumstances Tyson Danner had to overcome to get it on stage. (The theater lost it’s space days before the show was to open. Thankfully, Harrison Hilltop Theatre came to the rescue, allowing The Green Room to use its space.) That, alone, raises a curiosity to see how they pulled this one off. But, that, alone, is not the only reason to see The Green Room’s production.
The show is cast with actors who love the music, who respect it. That’ll add to the energy of any show. And, their passion permeates the performance, moving into the audience.
Cara Chumbley is Woman 1. Chumbley’s got a beautiful sound that fits well with Brown’s compositions. Although she has a tendency to belt when it’s not necessarily called for, her voice is so pleasant, that it doesn’t so much matter.
Tyson Danner, I’m told, stepped into the role of Man 1 after the originally cast actor dropped out. With the exception of his performance in Angels in America, every role I’ve seen Danner in is inhibited by a seeming lack of confidence. He’s got a really good voice and the ability to act, but he seems to hold back. I’m assuming it’s a bit of a lack of confidence in his abilities, a meekness. If he could overcome that, it Danner would be astounding. However, that meekness sometimes works in his favor. It’s actually perfect for the song “King of the World”. It’s sung from the perspective of a deity, assumedly, who is locked away. The actor on the soundtrack sings it with full defiance and demand. Danner, however, sings as if he’s broken and hoping to be freed. It’s a much more beautiful take on the piece. And, it’s all the more poignant, due to Danner’s circumstance with The Green Room.
Sarah Ulloa, however, is the most enjoyable cast member, as Woman 2. It may help, though, that Woman 2 has the two numbers that are vastly different from the rest of the pieces. “Just One Step” and “Surabaya Santa” are the two songs with the strongest motivation behind them. They’re sung by clear characters and carry most of the show’s humor. Ulloa is a singer who can act and takes these songs and portrays their humor, poignancy and power quite well. Ulloa’s performance in these two numbers is worth the price of a ticket and the time spent alone.
Steve Quartell, who was also in Angels in America alongside Danner, is Man 2. Quartell is confident, has a strong stage presence and a pleasant enough voice. However, I find his performance overly calculated. Instead of letting the songs move him and his performance, he seems to have pre-planned every expression and movement. It’s still a good performance, but lacks sincerity. It’s acting rather than being.
And then there’s Danny White on the piano. I’m always impressed with his work on the piano because it carries such passion. He doesn’t merely play the notes, but pours his own expression into them. It’s fantastic to hear and a delight to watch. Unfortunately, The Green Room cleverly chose to mask the piano with black material. It works well and looks good and I wouldn’t change it. I was just disappointed not to be able to watch White perform.
The staging and direction are simple, which is appropriate for the show. The blocking, however, did little to alleviate my perception of the show as dull and repetitive. Movement isn’t used in a way to enhance the performance until “The World was Dancing”, the first song in the second act. The rest of the songs have the performers standing still or walking just a bit. While it’s not inappropriate, I personally would have preferred more movement to help tell the tale of each song.
The staging fits The Green Room’s typical minimalist style. With a belief in strong performance over staging, The Green Room rarely uses anything beyond the most basic sets and props (although Misery was quite extensive). In my opinion, minimalism can be either artistic or cheap. Is easy to tell when a production is minimal because of a lack of money. That is not the case here, thanks mainly to the lighting. Lighting Designer Jennifer Kingry creates truly artistic moments, from the impression of buildings on “Just One Step” to a starry sky in “Stars and the Moon.”
“Songs for a New World” runs this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 (or pay what you can on Thursday) at the door or by calling (563) 650-2396. Performances are at the Harrison Hilltop Theatre, 1601 Harrison Street in Davenport.
Posted: January 15th, 2009 under Theater.